The SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic is impacting the daily lives of everyone around the world. We are isolated within our communities, we are exceeding the capacity of our health systems, and we are struggling to keep pace with the rapidness of the outbreak. But together, we can get through this. And together, we can innovate to make a difference. 

Roche Canada is committed to working in partnership with our Canadian community to develop solutions to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. To move this forward, on March 27, 2020, we established the Roche Canada COVID-19 Innovation Challenge, a funding program to support our community in bringing forward innovative ideas to address some of the biggest challenges and issues of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Some examples of these challenges that need to be addressed include:

  • How can we better understand disease biology, pathophysiology, transmission, etc.?
  • How can we address our health system capacity issues?
  • How do we enhance real-time information sharing?
  • How will we effectively manage remote and rural populations (eg. remote indigenous populations)?
  • How can we increase the education and awareness and promote healthy practices?
  • How can we increase the participation and effectiveness of social/physical distancing?
  • How can we manage productivity while distancing and isolating ourselves?

Individuals or teams submitted proposed innovative solutions to a challenge or issue that they have identified as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  All submissions were reviewed by a Roche Canada Steering Committee, and the chosen winning submissions will receive funds to support the development of the innovative solution.  

The Winning Solutions

Congratulations Canada!  Our Challenge called on all the creative and innovative minds in Canada to bring forward solutions to address the COVID-19 pandemic.  Incredibly, we received over 840 high quality applications demonstrating the amazing skill and talent we have in our country. We are happy to congratulate the following winners of the Roche Canada COVID-19 Open Innovation Challenge.1 We would like to thank all of the applicants for their participation in our COVID-19 Open Innovation Challenge and encourage everybody to follow their passion and continue to innovate!

Optimized City Operations in the Face of COVID-19: A Hybrid Complex Network Theoretic-Machine Learning Approach

Lead Applicant: Dr. Wael El-Dakhakhni
Institution: McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario

In this project, a novel City Dynamic Network Analysis (CityDNA) model will be developed to generate optimal city operation schemes in the face of COVID-19. By leveraging state-of-the-art techniques in network science, machine learning, systems analysis, and multi-objective optimization, the proposed CityDNA model will provide a unique decision support tool for optimizing the operation and/or reopening of municipal facilities (e.g. transit systems, parks, community centers, and schools) under complex constraints due to current and future COVID-19 pandemics. This project intends to provide innovative solutions to mitigate the risk of lasting economic and social damages caused by COVID-19 in cities across Canada.

Real-time Federated Search of Host and Viral Genomes

Lead Applicant: Marc Fiume
Institution: DNAstack, Toronto, Ontario

The risk factors for severe illness for COVID-19 are still being established. There is evidence that life-threatening immune responses (e.g. the cytokine storm syndrome) are mediated by the host human genome. At the same time, emerging data describes how multiple strains of the virus continue to evolve in different geographic areas, and experts around the world have called for a coordinated global approach involving ​genomic and epidemiological approaches. This project aims to develop technology to support fit-for-purpose real-time sharing, search, and analysis of viral and host genomes for COVID-19 and future disease outbreaks.

Testing Climate Conditions on SARS CoV-2 Transmission: What Will Be the Effect of Heat, Humidity, and Air Conditioning in Summer?

Lead Applicant: Eric J. Arts
Institutions: University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario and Centerline Limited, Windsor, Ontario

High heat and low humidity often reduces transmission of respiratory viruses and hopefully will provide some relief from the COVID-19 Canadian epidemic in the coming summer months.  However, there is growing evidence that populations sharing public air-conditioned places in the tropical zone are still experiencing growing epidemics (e.g. United Arab Emirates, Australia).  This team of virologists and engineers have designed an aerosolization chamber to test conditions of temperature and humidity on SARS-CoV-2 virus survival in the air and on various surfaces.  

An Optimized COVID-19 Diagnostic Test Incorporating Host Responses for Predicting Disease Course and Healthcare Needs

Lead Applicant: Jeremy Hirota
Institution: McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario

Understanding host immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 infection may yield prognostic indicators useful for optimizing healthcare delivery at the time of initial nasal swab collection for COVID-19 diagnosis. Nasal swabs are collected for COVID-19 clinical diagnosis, presenting a research opportunity to leverage remaining nucleic acids for host transcriptomic profiling and correlating with clinical outcomes. The objective is to correlate host transcriptome profiles from nasal swabs from COVID-19 +ve and -ve cases with clinical outcomes to generate algorithms for predicting patient morbidity/mortality and healthcare utilization, with the aim of optimizing COVID-19 diagnostic testing incorporating host responses.

Fast-Acting Touch Surface Antimicrobial

Lead Applicant: Matt Hodgson
Institution: 2071939 Alberta Ltd. o/a Outbreaker Solutions North America, Edmonton, Alberta

This project focuses on the testing and commercialization of a patented and fast-acting antimicrobial surface made from compressed sodium chloride (CSC) for high hand traffic fixtures such as door handles and railings. The product provides a fast-acting antimicrobial effect without any behaviour change required for training or operation. Sodium chloride, the active ingredient in CSC, is the only antimicrobial surface that eliminates bacteria, fungi and viruses in under 5 minutes. Other surfaces take at least 2 hours, during which the surface is not safe to touch. A research partnership has been established for rapid SARS-CoV-2 testing on our CSC surface and additional virus strains.

AI-empowered Real-time COVID-19 Symptom Monitoring and Prediction among Senior Residents

Lead Applicant: Dr. Samira Rahimi
Institution: McGill University, Montreal, Quebec

Long-term care (LTC) homes are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. This project will implement proven remote monitoring technology empowered with Artificial Intelligence to track, monitor and predict senior residents’ symptoms. The detection and prediction of asymptomatic changes will facilitate rapid isolation and can save thousands of lives. The technology will alert the providers when COVID-19 symptoms are identified/predicted and monitor any decompensation. This project will monitor 60 senior residents in two LTC homes (Toronto and Montreal) and then scale up for the entire LTC homes, and intends to protect LTC home staff and frail residents from exposure to COVID-19 by enabling remote monitoring.

Gravity Ventilator

Lead Applicant: Dr. Christopher Nguan 
Institution: University of British Columbia SOS eVent Group, Vancouver, British Columbia

Demand for ventilators to support critically ill COVID acute respiratory distress symptoms (ARDS) patients has the potential to exceed supply, resulting in excessive patient morbidity and mortality. British Columbia (BC) has an index of 10.3 ventilators per 100 000 persons, which is well below the national average of 14.9/100k. Using the concepts of water seals and pressure operated devices, a low cost, simple, mechanical positive-pressure ventilator for rapid production at scale was built: the gVent. The UBC SOS eVent Group’s mission is to build a simple, low-cost ventilator for use within the BC health system. 

Post Discharge After Surgery Virtual Care with Remote Automated Monitoring technology (PVC-RAM) Trial

Lead Applicant: Dr. P.J. Devereaux
Institutions:  Population Health Research Institute (PHRI), Hamilton, Ontario; Hamilton Health Sciences, Hamilton, Ontario; St. Joseph’s Healthcare, Hamilton, Ontario; London Health Sciences Centre, London, Ontario; The Ottawa Hospital, Ottawa, Ontario; Cloud DX, Kitchener, Ontario

To confront the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals need to maximize bed availability and minimize emergency department visits for non-COVID-19 reasons. Hospitals also have an obligation to treat non-COVID-19 patients with urgent conditions. Hospitals are continuing to provide surgery to patients for non-elective indications, and post discharge, these patients are at high risk of needing acute-hospital care. There is a strong rationale and promising data suggesting that virtual care with remote automated monitoring (RAM) technology will reduce the need for subsequent acute-hospital care, among adults discharged home after undergoing non-elective surgery. This project will undertake the PVC-RAM trial to directly inform this issue.

AR-YOU-OK Digital Wellness Solution for COVID-19

Lead Applicant: Loreen Wales
Institution: My Viva Plan Inc., Edmonton, Alberta

This project intends to deploy a novel, evidence-based journaling approach to promote mental health, diet and physical wellness using augmented reality (AR) guided interaction and reassurance. AR-YOU-OK is an AR avatar to promote resilience at a time of stress. Using any smartphone, the user will port their personal interactive avatar into their home. The AR avatar will talk to and prompt responses/self-reflection from the user and create a natural language processing-generated journal for therapeutic benefits. The AR avatar will act as a ‘self-help’ buddy to guide the user to a better state of mental health in an engaging way.

Development of Standard Microneutralization and Antibody Dependent Enhancement (ADE) Assays on Sera of COVID-19 Individuals

Lead Applicant: Mario Ostrowski
Institution: University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario

We don’t know what causes the lung disease in COVID-19 infection, and this project will determine whether the COVID-19 virus can trick the immune system in making antibodies that damage the lungs rather than neutralize the virus. The project calls this situation “antibody dependent enhancement” or ADE, meaning that the immune system makes antibodies against the virus allowing it to grow faster and cause immune damage to the lung. This project will develop an assay that detects ADE in a person’s serum. Many companies are making vaccines against COVID-19, and this assay will test if vaccines against COVID-19 could also make ADE in serum.

Could Personalized Mobile Interventions “Flatten the Curve” of Stress, Anxiety and Depression among Frontline Healthcare Workers During the COVID Pandemic?

Lead Applicant: Venkat Bhat
Institution: UnityHealth Network, Toronto, Ontario

Stress, anxiety, distress and depression are exceptionally high among healthcare workers at the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic. Factors underlying distress and resilience are unknown and there are no evidence-based interventions to impact the mental wellbeing of frontline healthcare workers. This study will evaluate a novel mobile platform to gather the “distress experience” of frontline healthcare workers at Unityhealth Toronto in real time during the ongoing COVID pandemic, use automated personalized mobile interventions (e.g. routine, sleep, exercise) to nudge active/passive parameters to manage distress, and examine role of add-on remote cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) when automated mobile interventions do not suffice.


1. Subject to due diligence and the successful execution of a funding agreement